-- Lester Bangs, 1973
I'd rather be dead than sing "Satisfaction" when I'm 45.
-- Mick Jagger, 1975
The Rolling Stones and the Super Bowl already were going places in 1967, but no one ever thought they were going to the same place.
A good number of football fans thought the Super Bowl was too subversive already for legitimizing the renegade AFL. The Los Angeles Coliseum didn't even fill for the first version in 1967, then called the AFL-NFL Championship Game.
The halftime show featured marching bands from the universities of Michigan and Arizona. Even if the Super Bowl wanted the gray eminencies of entertainment, say a 65-year-old Rudy Vallee or a 63-year-old Bing Crosby, they wouldn't have bothered. Crooning and football didn't mix. And Rock & Roll for a football audience was out of the question.
Football and Rock & Roll music were two opposing sides of an anxious cultural divide. Football was Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers coach who exercised rigid top-down authority, indoctrinating mammoth professional athletes with fear, discipline and the power sweep. Football had been around for nearly 100 years. And it was everywhere, built to last.
We were building highways and cities, a Great Society. We were fighting Commies and trying to put a man on the moon.
A generation raised on the Depression and World War II wanted cooperation. Football made an ideal GI spectacle, rough and tough, structured, militaristic and constructive. People got hurt, but life is hell. About then, football overtook baseball as the nation's most popular team sport.
Rock & Roll music belonged in teenagers' bedrooms, often secretly. It belonged in garages, on college campuses, in big cities and on Top 40 radio, AM.
Older folks thought the music, at best, an annoying youth fad. At worst, they feared it would undercut their well-ordered society, not understanding how the world popped underneath it all.
The beat, the noise, the indecipherable words, the drug culture -- it all drove the old folks to drink.
Worst of all, the devil everyone knew was the Rolling Stones, a band of scary thugs who made The Beatles look like clean-cut, respectable young men. Their lyrics dripped with sexual suggestion, their productions sounded dirty and aggressive, they didn't smile and their ways advocated permissiveness and drug use well before the Summer of Love. They weren't thought to be very nice.
In 1965, the Stones hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." In addition to horrifying the school marms with that casual double negative in the title, the Stones complained about bombarding commercialism and other frustrations. Mick Jagger fussed that "I can't get no girl with action. ... And I'm tryin' to make some girl who tells me baby better come back later next week, 'cause you see I'm on losing streak."
One still hears his mother saying that guy needs to take a cold shower. Bing sang about "darkies" early in his career, and the old folks didn't seem to mind.
On Feb. 5, having long ago lost his compunction about commercialism, a 62-year-old Jagger stood in the middle of Ford Field near completion of the Stones' Super Bowl halftime show, for which U.S. Sprint paid a $12 million sponsorship fee. The old folks would have been mortified if they weren't already dead. Then, after Jagger mentioned that the band could have performed its next song at Super Bowl I, "but everything comes to those that wait," the Stones tore into "Satisfaction."
Of all the popular culture's burning questions, none strikes with quite the ambivalence of the Rolling Stones and their persistence. Their creative powers had peaked when Bangs praised and buried them in Creem. Lesser bands were exhausting the vocabulary stipulated by Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street.
They needed new direction that only the Stones could provide, but now the Stones were running dry. By then, Bangs said, they were reduced to "nondescript fabulousness."
And what do you expect from a Rock & Roll band? It's one form of music among many, finite in its scope and powers, even by its ethos, we presume. Like any music or science or literary form, it dies when it stops raising or answering questions, when it just runs out of places to go or something better comes along.
Above all, Rock & Roll speaks to youth, but really to a specific flavor of youth that's no longer young. In particular, Rock & Roll was supposed to die before it got old.
It's fundamentally adolescent. It's supposed to be nihilistic, thrillseeking and borderline suicidal, "a good way to kill time before you die," a good friend, now much older, said long ago.
Elvis is dead, John Lennon and George Harrison are dead, the three main Ramones are dead and Kurt Cobain is dead. An actor, James Dean, sounded the call: "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse." Shortly after, he died.
But Mick and Keith Richards never said that. Come to think of it, neither did Chuck Berry. Maybe Mick didn't want to do "Satisfaction" at 45, but he also protested from time to time that age shouldn't stop him. After all, he grew up listening to Blues records by fellows in their forties, fifties and sixties. Keith, who still looks great, advocates "growing this music up."
So the Stones, the quintessential Rock & Roll band, also are the band most anathema to the form's fatalistic youth ethos. By their stance, they've rankled purists for more than three decades. When they toured behind Tattoo You, their last widely acclaimed album, a chorus begged for them to give it up. "I don't want to see those wasted old faggots," one college roommate told me. That was a quarter of a century ago.
And whenever the Stones tour or make a large-scale appearance, the feeling that something is very wrong always comes with them. And it goes away the second they start playing, because the Stones still do what they do better than anyone who ever tried to do it, and that's a long list.
So many bands marketed as Rock & Roll bands rock, but they don't roll, and that's been true for a long time. They thud, but they don't pulse. Maybe the Stones are a museum piece, but we open museums for good reasons -- to preserve and display worthy artworks in dead and dying forms.
Like it or not, the Stones persist, deferring the death of Rock & Roll, long ago a theoretical fait accompli. If they aren't doing anything especially new, if they no longer refresh the context for Rock & Roll, it's much because Rock & Roll is past refreshment. It's on life support.
Rock & Roll, such as it is, will live for as long as the Stones, not after. So it's good to see them while time is on their side. You'll miss them when they're gone.